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Bus Crash Revives Debate Over Seat Belts

The deadly crash of a school bus in Huntsville has revived questions about seat belts on school buses.

For years, school systems have been telling parents that seat belts wouldn't do any good.

But a NewsChannel 5 investigation last year raised serious questions about that story.

Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams discovered that the people who have to comb through the wreckage have a different perspective.

Williams combed through the wreckage of another violent school bus crash that, for one school, became a real-life test of seat belts.

"The seat belts were on the child who was sitting toward the front of the bus," said Dean Donehoo of the Murray County, Ga., school system.

Video from one crash, obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, shows that a little girl named Brittany chose a seat that just happened to have a seat belt.

Out of habit, she buckled up.

Then, just 20 seconds later, as her friend Amber looked out the window, the bus pulled into the path of a speeding train.

"The child who was in the seat belt survived the accident and walked away from it with very minor injuries," Donehoo told Williams.

For crash investigators, the lessons were obvious.

"If a child can survive a collision with a train with a bruise across the belly, then why in the world do we not have seat belts on every single seat?" asked investigator Cheri Carroll-Morgan.

In fact, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have been saying for seven years that the federal government needs to do more to protect children.

For almost 30 years, school bus safety in this country has been based on a concept called compartmentalization -- foam in the back, foam in the front -- to absorb the impact of a collision.

But the safety board says if the impact comes from the side, children could be seriously injured or killed from the impact

And, if a school bus rolls over,  as video from an Ohio crash shows,  all bets are off.

"If that school bus rolls over, there is a high likelihood that you are going to have children not only injured, but killed," former NTSB chairman Jim Hall told Williams.

That's where seat belt manufacturers say their product makes a difference. Their crash tests show what happens in a rollover with seat belts -- and without.

"In a rollover, children are tossed around like clothes in a dryer," says developer James Johnson. "So, you can see the effectiveness of the lap and shoulder belt."

Hall says that "parents expect once they put their child on that yellow bus for them to be safe."

He adds that all the time he spent investigating the death of children convinced him that seat belts are a must.

"All you have to do is know one family that goes through the devastation of the loss of a child, you'll do everything in your power to ensure that all of the vehicles that your kids get on have seat belts."

More information:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration position paper -- Defends compartmentalization (the current safety standard)
NHTSA's Report to Congress -- Finds some potential benefits to lap-shoulder belts
National Transportation Safety Board study -- Finds compartmentalization "incomplete"
NTSB investigation -- Report of bus-train collision reaffirms limits of compartmentalization
School Transportation News -- Analysis of seat belt debate
National Coalition for School Bus Safety -- Position of advocacy group
Safeguard -- Web site of seat belt developer
State of Missouri -- Gov. Matt Blunt pushes lap-shoulder belt on new buses

Contact the governor
Contact state senators
Contact state representatives

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